Indo-Bhutan Digital Diplomacy and Cyber Regime Formation: Scope and Possibilities

Sreemoyee Sarkar

Dr. Sreemoyee Sarkar is a teaching assistant at the Faculty of History and co-Faculty of International Relations, at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi, Jharkhand, India.

This article is in continuation of my previous articles on Indo-Nepal Cyber Diplomacy and Regime Formation (Sarkar, July 2021: 23) and Indo-Bhutan Cyber Diplomacy and Regime Formation, (Sarkar, October 2021: 37) published in Political Reflection Magazine. The present article would focus on the scope and possibilities of Indo-Bhutan Digital Diplomacy towards a cyber regime and the scope of a coherent cyberspace regime formation between India and Bhutan. It would also try to concentrate on why a cyber regime formation among the SAARC countries are relevant to both legal discourse and International Relations, which has been enduring incredible advances due to the revolution in Information and Communication Technology (ICT), fundamentally reshaping the conduct of the existing world order.

Cyberspace is rapidly growing without any universal cyber regime to date. Its user base comes from all walks of life, making it vulnerable to numerous security threats. The virtual space operates without boundaries, challenges the very nature of the operating procedures of the real world, i.e., governance, maintenance, ownership, legal jurisdictions, etc. Nation-states are already been marred by virtual espionage and surveillance scams, e.g., ‘Flame’ malware attack in Israel and Iran, ‘Duqu’ malware attack in Iran, ‘Shamoon’ virus attack in Saudi Arabia, ‘Regin’ spyware attack on the energy sector and airlines, Edward Snowden’s ‘US Disclosure’ etc. India and Bhutan are yet to face a ‘complex targeted cyber-attack’, have already come across sophisticated, internal and external cyber-attacks, targeting individuals, jeopardizing financial activities and putting government organizations at risk. In absence of a globally implemented cybersecurity framework, both nations are trying to ensure the stability of their critical digital infrastructures and ICT systems, through their respective national agencies, certifying accreditation to the domestic public sector professionals. Furthermore, the covert cyber operations by various state, non-state players have created a tectonic shift in the cyber-governance policy of the world, resulting in a sea-change in the future of South Asian cyberspace. The South Asian cybersecurity scenario is dominated by the activities of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Although these countries remain relatively dormant in the cyber realm, they are active stakeholders in global cyber politics, both as perpetrators and victims of cybersecurity challenges (Dilipraj, 2015: 161 – 162).

In an absence of universally charted recognized cyber research and development programmes training schemes, India and Bhutan follow the technologically advanced countries (Upadhyaya et al. 2012: 1076).  The sheer size of the user base, high digital information usage and the geopolitical calculations of South Asia, make India and Bhutan close allies in terms of security practices, policy formulation to cater to the legal instruments, digital infrastructures and ICT strategy architectures (Outlook 2021, 29 June). Thence, both are looking for a resilient capacity building cybersecurity mechanism, which requires a more comprehensive approach from every stakeholder in the region inclusive of the states, non-state actors and individual netizens and the same can be reflected in their foreign policy initiatives; bilateral interactions, diplomatic strategies binding mutual national security. Both the governments require to invest more in generating human resources, robust cyber law implementation mechanism coupled with adequate cyber sensitization among the police, lawyers, advocates and other facilitators involved in cybercrime prevention measures (Vanthi 2021, 3 August). Moreover, the China factor remained a predicament for both India and Bhutan. Both India and Bhutan have border disputes with China. China’s hybrid tactics of proposing border deals and dialogues with India and Bhutan on the one hand and a completely aggressive posture on its borders with India and Bhutan, on the other, is meant to push southward with its expansionist policies. China’s relentless penetration tactics manipulate South Asian national discourses. So far, Bhutan remains India’s most steadfast partner in South Asia. India, on the other hand, plays a significant role in ensuring Bhutan’s economic prosperity and military security (Gambhir 2021, 29 July). – Do India-Bhutan ties be assumed to be immune to China’s increasingly assertive and volatile actions in the Himalayan region?

Moreover, the idea of public diplomacy and the possibilities of “soft power” have become popular tools provided by the information revolution that is constantly in flux (Nye 2004: 11 -13). All the major state players routinely try to use “soft power” to influence the views of others through television, radio, and print media and via the Web. Those who generate the information view it as “public diplomacy.” Since the 1990s, new communications and information technologies have begun to enable advances in e-government, e-democracy, and e-participation in South Asia as well. India as a South Asian player now routinely use the Web to provide netizens and supporters with information. The government and candidates of the Royal Government of Bhutan are also attracted to digital media promoting e-democracy across the state. In both, countries, politicians and parties do rely on the Web to solicit contributions, elicit views from their people and seek inputs to assist them in their decision-making. A few isolated localities have also experimented with E-voting in elections, especially during the pandemic. – In the meantime, has the Indo-Bhutan cyber policy regime been deterred enough to the cyber misuse and unauthorized access infringing national interests and regional stakes?

Indo-Bhutan diplomatic ties date back to the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship with India in 1949. Bhutan has been recognized as ‘an essential ally’ by India through the reinforcement of the India Bhutan Friendship Treaty in 2007. Bhutan was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first foreign visit under his “Neighbourhood First Policy” in 2014. India and Bhutan have celebrated 50 years of maturing diplomatic ties in 2018. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotey Tshering visited India under Bhutan’s “India First Policy” in 2018. In 2019, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar chose Bhutan for his maiden bilateral visit (Kumar 2019, 5 July). Hence, it is evident that both the governments consider each other ‘a necessary piece’ for ensuring their economic and strategic presence in the region. Therefore, Indo-Bhutan digital diplomacy is in the best security interest of the SAARC and it lies in the cooperative engagement of these two neighbours and non-interference in national affairs. Through such an optimistic interactive plane, India and Bhutan would derive more mutual benefits. – At this juncture, has Indo-Bhutan digital diplomacy entered into the politico-legal discourses and predicaments of exercising the fundamental right of freedom of expression?

Moreover, there are different cyberspace regime models available to the public and the private stakeholders viz. the US model, Japan model, EU model, etc., for legal guidance and policy goals to combat cyber issues. EU is both India and Bhutan’s strategic partner. All the stakeholders share a mutual interest in further linking the Digital Indo-Bhutan initiative and the EU’s Digital Single Market by deepening cooperation on issues such as ICT standardization, Internet of Things, Internet governance and the exchange of best cybersecurity practices (EU Cyber Direct 2018, 12 December). Brussels, New Delhi and Thimphu also benefit from promoting an international framework for responsible state behaviour through cybersecurity norms, confidence-building measures and capacity building. To jointly pursue these interests, a web of bilateral cybersecurity arrangements between India and Bhutan with EU member states and response teams looks promising (Delegation of the EU to India and Bhutan Press Release 2021, 17 May).

Indo-Bhutan’s regional initiatives are directed by SAARC and the BIMSTEC conventions. In the SAARC summit, 2004, India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee expressed: “We have to change South Asia’s image and standing in the world. We must make the bold transition from mistrust to trust, from discord to concord and from tension to peace” (PM Speech, 12th SAARC Summit: January 2004). Hitherto, cybersecurity management in the SAARC countries vaguely addresses the cyber asymmetry between the neighbouring nations (Ali, SAARC Responses, 2014: 96). Such cooperative orientation along bilateral platforms might have taken the Indo-Bhutan relation to a new height developing a holistic cyber policy regime in the SAARC region with further international ramifications (Shrestha, SAARC Responses, 2014: 143). On the other hand, BIMSTEC regional cyberspace ecosystem offers an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration and cooperation in cyberspace (Chibbar 2018, IDSA, 18 December); especially when India and Bhutan’s national cyber regime scenarios are sober but prove to be vulnerable to Chinese cybercrime penetration.

India and Bhutan, both cherish bilateral and trilateral platforms with Israel, a strong strategic ally (Chaudhury 2020, 12 December). Both the concerned countries seek international cooperation effective criminal justice response from UNODC to conduct more capacity building activities to enhance given the relatively recent engagement in the topic of the use of the internet for terrorism. India’s recent “Atmanirbhart Bharat” underscores steps to be taken at the national level to strengthen the domestic legal and policy framework to implement the universal legal framework against cyber terrorism. Bhutan needs a channelled bilateral exchange of ‘technical training and expertise’. Indo-Bhutan cyber diplomacy can lead to a more comprehensive cooperative cyber policy practice (Bisth 2012, IDSA, September). “Bhutan seeks to develop its digital and space sectors to fulfil the aspirations of its new generation and India has stepped up to facilitate this endeavour.” (Mishra 2019, 19 September).

The Indo-Bhutan interface in terms of technology is nothing new and so far, has emphasized the ‘technology transfer’, recognized as ‘third world’s response’ as a part of ‘South-South Cooperation’. With time Indo-Bhutan bilateral relation has matured from political to economic collaboration and geostrategic to cybersecurity regime, serving mutual interests. It is highly anticipated that there exists a huge possibility for India and Bhutan to interact over the ‘cyber’ factor with the security diplomacy implications as well as regime formation. It is obvious that in the post-pandemic future, the status of the cyber factor in the states is going to determine the inter-state relation. India’s geopolitical security concerns in Bhutan, as a buffer state between India and China, harps around the commonality in the ‘cyber threats types’ and ‘national response mechanism’. Accordingly, India and Bhutan governments would execute a robust bilateral cybersecurity policy strategy, implementing the national and sector-specific cybersecurity measure, energizing cooperative inter-state, intra-state, intra-agency and private-public partnerships-based cyber capacity building (NIICE Commentary: 4061). Thus, regional cyberspace policy initiative in line with a regime formation like the EU would lead to some positive regional statuesque, heralding a positive interdependent cyber regime and cyberspace security management.

Reference List

UNODC (2015) Bhutan: Countering use of internet for terrorist activities an emerging concern, South Asia, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, January. (Accessed 2 September 2021).

Chaudhury Dipanjan Roy (2020) Israel & Bhutan establish diplomatic relations, The Economic Times, 12 December.

Chhibbar Ashish (2018) BIMSTEC: An Unprecedented Opportunity for Collaboration and Cooperation in Cyberspace, IDSA Comment, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, 18 December. (Accessed 9 September 2021).

Conversation on cyber diplomacy (2018) EU-India Cyber Expert Meeting, EU Cyber Direct, Brussels, 12 December.  (Accessed 1 August 2021).

Delegation of the European Union to India and Bhutan (2021) Cyberspace: Strengthening cooperation in promoting security and stability, European External Action Service, Press Release, Brussels, 17 May. (Accessed 1 August 2021).

Dilipraj E (2015) South Asian Cyber Security Environment: An Analytical Perspective. Asian Defence Review 2014 – 2015, July, Knowledge World Publishers, pp 161 – 190. (Accessed 23 August 2021).

Gambhir Mohak (2021) China’s Rising Pressure on Bhutan’s Borders is Aimed at India, Centre of Land and Warfare Studies, 29 July.

Kumar Kashish (2019) Is India Losing Grip on Bhutan? The Diplomat. 5 July.

MEA (2020) 6th India-EU Cyber Dialogue. Press Release. Media Centre. Ministry of External Affairs. 17 December. (Accessed 22 April 2021).

Medha Bisht (2012) Bhutan–India Power Cooperation: Benefits Beyond Bilateralism, Strategic Analysis, 36:5, 787-803, DOI: 10.1080/09700161.2012.712390.

Mishra Shreya (2019) India-Bhutan relations entering the digital age, Observer Research Foundation, 19 September. (Accessed 19 August 2021).

Nye Joseph Samuel Jr. (2004) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Public Affairs, New York. pp. 6 – 17.

Outlook Web Desk (2021) Countries Deploying Cyberspace to Achieve Political, Security-Related Objectives: Foreign Secretary, Outlook Magazine, 29 June.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speech at the 12th SAARC Summit on 3 January 2004.

SAARC Responses Articles (2014) FPRC Journal. (4): 94 – 134. Foreign Policy Research Centre. New Delhi.

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Vanthi Madhu (2021) India’s Cyber Space Security Requires an Urgent Booster Shot, Centre of Land and Warfare Studies, 3 August.

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